This undated image provided by the U.S. Navy shows the amphibious assault ship USS Essex in the Pacific Ocean.

This undated image provided by the U.S. Navy shows the amphibious assault ship USS Essex in the Pacific Ocean. (AP Photo/Joe Kane, courtesy U.S. Navy)

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — A “steering malfunction” aboard the beleaguered USS Essex is believed to be the culprit behind the ship’s at-sea collision with a fleet replenishment oiler Wednesday morning, Navy officials said.

No injuries were reported and no fuel was spilled as a result of the collision with the USNS Yukon, which occurred at 9:20 a.m., about 120 miles off the coast of Southern California as the Essex made its approach during a routine fuel replenishment, according to a U.S. Navy 3rd Fleet news release. The incident occurred one day before the 21-year-old amphibious assault ship was scheduled to arrive at its new homeport at U.S. 3rd Fleet rotational forces San Diego.

Navy officials declined further comment, but The Washington Post reported that both ships were able to continue on to their destination under their own power.

“While both ships reported some damage, no one was injured, there was no fuel spilled and the ships’ fuel tanks and systems were not compromised,” the Navy release said. “The Navy will conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of the collision, and a full assessment of any damage is ongoing.”

The collision is the latest black eye for the Essex and U.S. Navy ships as their readiness is often called into question with deep budget cuts looming on the horizon. More than one-fifth of Navy ships fell short of combat readiness in the past two years, and fewer than half of the service’s deployed combat aircraft are ready for their missions at any given time, according to congressional testimony.

The Essex had just completed a hull swap in Sasebo, Japan, last month with the USS Bonhomme Richard after being forward deployed to the region for the last 12 years.

While the ship’s crew provided extensive humanitarian assistance during its time in Sasebo, its final years in the region were marred by maintenance issues and the death of a sailor partially attributed to nonfunctioning systems onboard.

The ship failed to complete two missions during a seven-month span because of maintenance issues. Then in November 2011, Petty Officer 1st Class Regan Young was struck and killed by a mounted missile launcher while the ship was off Bali, Indonesia. A Navy investigation revealed that, in addition to gross negligence on the part of the ship’s former crew, nonfunctioning systems on board the ship contributed to his death.

This week’s collision puts a damper on what was being billed as a triumphant homecoming for the ship, called “The Iron Gator.”

“Essex departed San Diego in 2000, to serve as a forward-deployed asset to 7th Fleet,” the ship’s new skipper, Capt. Chuck Litchfield, said in a Navy news release Tuesday, announcing the homecoming. “I know there are a lot of former crew members and fans of the ship still in the area, so it is going to be a real pleasure to re-introduce ‘The Iron Gator’ to San Diego.”

But on Thursday, the ship’s Facebook page was lit up with comments from concerned family members trying to check on the well-being of their loved ones.

Cmdr. Ron Steiner, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet, said he did not believe the Essex had been involved in a collision before. The USNS Yukon has been in two at-sea collisions, according to The Washington Post report.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.

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